Had a fine turnout last night at the Richland (MI) Community Library. Text is posted here before a couple of photos from the event.
“Some Thoughts On Writing Fiction”
Take a deep breath. Hold. Now let it out slowly. My intention tonight is to give you the finger.
As a novelist and a maker of fiction I work hard every day to find ways to give the finger to all of my readers. My success depends on my ability to trick you into the suppression of simple truth. I want you to take a lie for reality, to treat it like it’s real.
I’m being quite literal. I get paid to lie.
The word “fiction” is old and comes down to us from Middle English, about a thousand years ago — that period roughly between the 12th and 15th centuries. In Middle English the word meant “invented statement.” The Middle English word developed from Old French, which in turn grew out of the Latin noun fictio and the verb fingere meaning “to contrive.”
Fingere, a contrived or invented statement… the finger if you will.
As readers we’re all complicit in this process. In fact, without us, there is no contrivance, no fiction, no story, no purpose. Although writing is a loner’s game, the drive to tell stories is quite social.
Over the past fourteen years I’ve spent about a month a year on patrol in trucks with DNR officers all around the state: Detroit, Lansing, Flint, Muskegon and literally all around the U.P. In this time I’ve done solo patrols with more than 50 officers and various group gropes with close to 150. I’ve worked with uniforms on routine patrols and I’ve also worked undercover jobs in both the Upper and Lower Peninsula. I’ve seen COs rise from newbies to captain and retire, and I have known four chiefs.
I’ve worked just about any kind of case you can imagine and in every kind of weather. I had one day with an officer in Leelanau County which began with recovering a suicide from the Sleeping Bear dunes and ended with chasing and arresting a drunk driver who already had four convictions and “Just wanted to go home.”
But I’m not going to tell DNR war stories or flog my books. You can ask me about DNR stuff when we get to Q&A tonight. Rather I want to talk to you about writing and what sorts of things authors concern themselves in fashioning their work.
We sit down to read a novel knowing full well that the story is made up, and that, while it may be constructed of a lot of substance that looks and feels and sounds real, it’s not reality or history. And it’s not autobiographical in the sense that the author is not the main character or protagonist. We all know these things, yet we still want to read, in the hope we’ll be taken away by the “contrivance” and given an experience we probably would never get on our own.
What we are talking about tonight is in my mind a kind of magic, and like all magic, it rides on misdirection, which is to say, we want the magic trick to work, and we don’t want to think too hard about how it works. What happens then is that we as readers prepare ourselves to be magically graced. This was once called the suppression of simple truth. The late Samuel Coleridge, he of “Ancient Mariner” fame, called it suspension of disbelief.
What we’re looking for in this magic is compelling originality. Some literary wags contend not only that all plots have already been done, but that there are only two plots — a stranger comes to town, or someone goes on a trip. Can plots be successfully used again and again? Think about the story of Cain and Abel, which is only sixty lines and fewer than 700 words in the Bible. How many times has that story served writers who followed?
Writers find multiple paths to originality. Inventing a plot from scratch is one approach, but only one. The great Shakespeare used work of others before him, or even some sources roughly contemporary to him. Many playwrights in those days often worked in teams the way Hollywood scriptwriters now cooperate in twos and threes. In our value system using something someone else wrote is called plagiarism, but this was not considered so in Elizabethan England.
Shakespeare had a remarkable eye for potential in stories and tales of others and he made those his raw materials and churned them through his creative filter, which was not so much focused on plot as it was on characterization. What the Bard did was make characters come alive with many words he created himself. In Hamlet, for example, he used 600 words that he never used in any other play. Over the course of his career he invented more than 1,700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original. I am not talking about strange ancient now-dead words, but vocabulary you and I use on a regular basis: gloomy / laughable / majestic/ lonely / radiance / hurry / generous / frugal / critical /courtship /zany/undress / rant. He made new words and expected audiences to understand them in context. Many of the 1,700 words fell into common use and are still used today by people right here in this library. How’s that for impact?
Shakespeare’s originality came from in his ability to make compelling a pretend-story — a contrivance– but he made his stories in the form of plays, not novels. Although many of the basic stories he chose were in large part known and had already been rendered, he brought them to life and his own fire and chemistry. In doing so he made the old and worn look, feel, and sound new, and made them come shockingly alive to his audiences.
What made his work so compelling? More than any other writer of his time he took his audience directly inside the minds of characters in a way no author had ever done before him. Going into the individual mind was just not done then or before. This was a huge shift, which now seems pretty common to all forms of our literature.
Scholar James Shapiro tells us, “The sense of inwardness that Shakespeare creates by allowing us to hear a character as intelligent as Hamlet, wrestle with his thoughts is something no dramatist had yet achieved. He had written memorable soliloquies from early on in his career, but as powerful as these were, they fall short of the intense self-awareness we find in Hamlet’s. The breakthrough is one that Shakespeare might have arrived at sooner or later, but it was given tremendous impetus at the time he was writing Hamlet by his interest in a new literary form, l’essai.”
Biographer Sarah Blakewell tells us French writer Michel de Montaigne created the new genre of the essay and he did it using the plentiful material of his own life rather than either pure philosophy or pure invention. This publication took place in the late 1580s and it seems likely Shakespeare either read or was at least aware of the work. It is this sense of looking inward from both Montaigne and Shakespeare that put literature on the road to where it is now, and this is why we still read both authors and their works.
Finding meaning and story in the ordinary was also picked up upon by Walt Whitman. It was the poet’s contention that the ordinary is the storehouse of the extraordinary, and the only place we’ll ever encounter the extraordinary is in the ordinary, in the daily events of life. Think of the old saw, the devil is in the details. From the ordinary details of life, those we all share, Whitman took it further, declaring, “I am you. We are one creation.”
Literature had moved from the external and large to the internal and small and in the process found us the same, an astonishing leap. There was a time when asking Who am? was punishable by death. One view ruled and no questions were brooked.
Realism, inward or outward looking, focusing on the stuff of everyday life, this is an essence of Shakespeare.
Why I the hell am I — a mere mystery writer – bringing up Shakespeare? Our great author Jim Harrison recently told an interviewer that prose is “all about character,” and that his stories are driven by language, not plot. The key, Harrison says, is to find the voice of the character and let that voice tell the story, or guide you through.
Harrison’ s right. So tonight I am going to create a character for you and use that character to illustrate some of the decisions authors must make in making a story. Make no mistake about it, Shakespeare, Harrison or Heywood, all stories must be made, word by word. And I am going to make this character with the sort of realism that Montaigne and Shakespeare brought to us.
How the writer puts together the story will affect how and if it gets read.
I hope when we’re done here tonight, you’ll have some understanding of how the mind of one writer thinks and operates, not all writers, because there is no one right way, but how this one writer does his work, and the sorts of mental gymnastics involved in creating what I think are essentially fairly straightforward stories about folks who perform interesting, important, and dangerous work.
Writing is like trout fishing in that you are constantly trying to read the river, seeking the location of fish and what sort of activity they might be engaged in. Often you don’t see the entire fish, only a small part of it, and a great part of learning to spot fish and read rivers rests on learning to conjure whole fish from small parts. It’s not substantially different for a writer.
Writers and artists tend to see almost everything differently than others. Virginia Woolf wrote: “An ordinary mind on an ordinary day amasses impressions haphazardly, inattentively, and keeps a latent but later accessible stock of…encounters from which rises a sense of self, which is then the product of its conditioning by this random accumulation.”
Ergo, we have a recent statistically valid Pew poll reporting that 10 percent of Christians polled thought Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. I’m not making that up. This chaotic and scattered approach to observing and experiencing life is one reason people make lousy eyewitnesses. We all claim to look, but as it turns out, few of us actually see, and probably none of us see fully all the time.
Now please bear with me. I’m going to try to mess with my voice. This usually happens almost exclusively inside my head, but tonight I’ll try to bring in the inner audio here to the room. It may slow me down. I read out loud everything I write to Lonnie to see if and how she reacts, but mostly this sort of voice thing goes on inside my head. Tbe more accurate, it goes on while characters are being born, a process which is largely divorced from any direction from my conscious brain. Birth seems to be more a matter of their choice than my will.
E.L. Doctorow insists “the language you use is a decision made in the depth of your brain before you even begin. A voice comes to you as something compelling, with its own diction, and its own level syntactic simplicity or complexity. And it’s your animal.”
He’s right. Make sure your trays are in the upright position, and secured, and that your seat belts are fastened. Here we go.
“THEY CALL ME DOUG. I WAS A COP FOR TWO WEEKS. NOW I RUN A ROCK SHOP FOR MY UNCLE ALPO. WE GOT ALL KINDS OF ROCKS, LIKE THAT BLACK GUY BUBBA AND HIS SHRIMP IN THAT MOVIE GOT HIMSELF KILLED OVER TO VIETNAM, IN THAT MOVIE ABOUT FORREST WHAT-S HIS FACE? I HAD ME TWO WIVES. FIRST ONE TOOK TO SEX LIKE A TROUT TO COLD WATER – ANY COLD WATER. SHE SLEPT WITH FOUR DIFFERENT MINISTERS AND AN ANGLICAN PRIEST. ACTUALLY THEY WEREN’T SLEEPING, EH? MY SECOND WIFE, ALL SHE DOES IS GO DRINKING WITH HER SISTER AT THE INDIAN CASINO, AND RUN UP A TAB I GOT TO PAY OFF EVERY MONTH. I DON’T DRINK NO MORE. LIFE HURTS. I GOT THIS SKIN CONDITION AND EVERY BUG THAT TOUCHES ME EXPLODES ON CONTACT, SUMMER MONTHS IT SOUNDS LIKE I’M POPPING CORN ON MY SKIN AND I ALWAYS SMELL LIKE BRIMSTONE. DON’T GET ME GOING ON MY FIRST WIFE.”
It’s me – Joe — I’m back here again. If what I do confuses you, think what it’s like to be inside my mind all the time. Poor Lonnie has to live with this.
Okay, brief background here: There is really was a Doug, he had two wives, and he ran a rock shop. I never met him. All the rest is creating just for us, just for tonight. I conjure a person – a character – sometimes they arrive without invitation – and I then listen to the character talking only to me. Sometimes I’ll eventually postulate what if X or Y happened to Doug? What if always acts as the catalyst or launch pad for stories.
My process always begins with character, and character always arrives first as a voice Harrison says his stories usually begin with a series of images and that he thinks about his novels for a long time, a year or sometimes many years, and a lot of this thinking happens when he is walking or driving long distance. Mine brew and ferment a long time as well.
My voices may come to me in dreams, or when I’m in the woods, or sitting in a restaurant, or standing here talking to you. The trick is to learn to hear and then listen to them. I write down the things I hear people say because it is a good way to capture the rhythms of real speech, and this in turn later helps me to make dialog seem real. It’s not, but it has to seem so.
To repeat an earlier point: Stories must be made, word by word.
But the making of fiction is somewhat like an iceberg. That is, the part you see on your book-shelf is just a teensy fragment of the whole undertaking.
Writers’ minds sometimes inhabit other worlds and this world simultaneously. I once told my daughter that something I had seen or heard would probably please Grady Service.
She said. “Earth to Dad: He’s not real. He’s made up.”
“To you,” I said.
What…? Wait a minute…What’s that? Sorry, Doug is here again.
“I REALLY LIKED BEING A COP, BUT I AIN’T ONE NO MORE ON ACCOUNT I SHOT A DAMN WOLF AT MY DEER BAIT PILE. MY CHIEF’S WIFE WAS A WOLF- AND TREE-HUGGER. THE CHIEF, HE JUST LAUGHED WHEN I PAID THE FINE, CALLED ME A DUMB-ASS. THAT WOULDA AND SHOULA BEEN THE END OF IT. BUT HIS WIFE, SHE NEVER LET UP. CALLED ME MORTALLY DEPRAVED. AND WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? SHE WAS BEST FRIENDS WITH MY FIRST WIFE WHO WAS OUT BANGING SO-CALLED MEN OF THE CLOTH, AND I’M MORTALLY DEPRAVED? MY FIRST WIFE WAS A BITCH FROM HELL. HER FRIENDS TOO. THE CHIEF’S OLD LADY, SHE WOULDN’T LET UP AND FINALLY THE CHIEF GAVE IN. I THINK HE THOUGHT IT WOULD BE CHEAPER TO FIRE MY ASS THAN TO DIVORCE HIS OLD LADY. SO OUT I WENT, AND HERE I AM NOW IN A MUSTY OLD ROCK SHOP. LIFE STINKS. MY SECOND WIFE GAMBLES AND DRINKS. SEE WHAT I MEAN ABOUT LIFE?”
Thus far I have used only 347 words to introduce Doug, his voice, and some of his backstory. I can’t impart the actual voice in writing, but I can impart a sense of tone by the vocabulary I select, the order I put the words into, and in this case the idiosyncrasies of his speech. All of this gives you some glimpse of who Doug might be and I hope keeps you reading.
It ought to be obvious that I really love to write. And I respect the craft. It is demanding and sometimes frustrating, with long hours and days and weeks and months and even years. Most of what I do is the long game, not the short one. And there’s never a guarantee that all the time and sweat I invest will ever become a full-fledged manuscript, much less get published. Even after 30 years in the book business, yesterday doesn’t count, except perhaps to readers.
To publishers everything is pretty much meaningless other than financial results, a stanza in the old song. What have you done for me lately? If your publisher makes the money they expect, you get to keep publishing. If not, it’s ciao e arrivederci, signore.
Welcome to the reality authors must live with.
Noted author Jerry Dennis writes in The Windward Shore about the need to use solitude as an avenue into a mood of enchantment – or as Jerry puts it, re-enchantment, the default condition of childhood. When we are in this condition, writing, reading, playing golf, making love, whatever, we discover that time races by quickly and when we step back from the enchanted feeling, we are shocked to find how long we have been engrossed.
Childlike default: this is probably the ideal description of the artist’s creative state.
I know quite a few people who think they want to write a book, but I suspect what they really mean is that they want to be known as someone who wrote a book, not that they want to actually do all the work it takes to produce one, which is an entirely different creature. Even Doug is in this large and amorphous wannabe group.
“PEOPLE TELL ME I OUGHT WRITE A BOOK ON HOW TO MARRY THE WRONG WOMAN. WAH! THAT’S A JOKE! THEY’RE ALL THE WRONG WOMAN IF THEY MARRY ME. DOUG DEFINES WRONG WHEN IT COMES TO SPOUSES AND LET ME TELL YOU IF A WOMAN TELLS YOU SHE LOVES SEX WITH YOU, SHE MEANS SHE LOVES IT WITH ANYONE AND EVERYONE.GEEZ OH PETE.”
I should tell you that Doug is quite the reader but it’s the writer’s job to show, not tell, so we’ll let him do just that:
“I DON’T BUY NO BOOKS NO MORE. THEY COST TOO DAMN MUCH — JUST SO SOME FATASS WRITER CAN LIVE THE EASY LIFE OF SMILEY – LIKE MY FIRST WIFE LIVED OFFEN ME — JUST FOR SCRIBBLING DOWN SOME DAMN STORY HE PROB’LY HEARD FROM SOME JAMOKE LIKE ME WITH A REAL JOB? I DON’T THINK SO. I USE THE PUBLIC LIBRARY. BUT THAT COSTS ME MONEY TOO, ONLY IT AINT’ AS MUCH AS BUYING A BOOK, AND WHEN IT’S DONE WHAT DO I WANT WITH THE DAMN THING ANYWAY? BOOKS AND BOWLING SHOES JUST COLLECT DUST. BUT LIBRARY BOOKS, YOU CAN TAKE ‘EM BACK, NOW THAT I THINK ABOUT IT, MY FIRST WIFE WAS KIND OF A LENDING LIBRARY, A BOOK TO BE OPENED AND READ FAST OR SLOW BY ANYONE WITH THE SLIGHTEST INTEREST AND COOL COVER TO GET HER ATTENTION. SHE WAS A REAL BITCH AND SOMETHING ELSE I CAN’T SAY IN NO MIXED-UP COMPANY, I BELIEVE THE CONSTITUTION AND THE BILL OF LIGHTS OUGHT TO INCLUDE A THING THAT GIVES CAPITAL PUNISHMENTS FOR ADULTERY. MY FIRST WIFE SAID SHE’D SUPPORT CAPITAL PUNISHMENTS FOR LOUSY PERFORMANCE IN BED AND THAT PISSED ME OFF AND HURT MY FEELINGS TOO. YEAH, I DO GOT FEELINGS. TRUTH IS, I ALWAYS ENJOYED MYSELF IN BED WITH HER. LIFE AIN’T FAIR.”
Doug and Joe Heywood both grew up as a library kids. In Heywood’s own military brathood his family used to cycle from time to time between assignments, meaning his father went ahead of the family, who then spent weeks or months at the paternal grandparent’s home in his birthplace in New York State, on the banks of the Hudson River, about 20 miles north of Poughkeepsie and 40 miles south of Albany. The town of Kingston and the Catskill Mountains are directly across the river.
By the time the village took its current name of Rhinecliff, it had already been inhabited for 150 years. Formerly known as Kipsbergen, it was founded by Dutch settlers in 1686, nine decades before the American Revolution. At 329 years old, Rhinecliff has not changed all that much and it is in the author’s heart, his true birth home, the place that wherever he may wander, he always relates back to. Heywood feels history and nature deeply and when he first moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the summer of 1957, he immediately felt the depth of both history and nature there. A sense of history often develops from travel and reading.
There was a Boy’s Club in Rhineclifff, which met weekly at the Morton Memorial Library and Community House, one of those once-a-week-lets-make-crap-with-plywood, using coping saws with blades as thin as dog hairs.
“MY WIFE WAS THE CRAFTY TYPE. SHE BELONGED TO BOWLING LEAGUES, KNITTING CIRCLES, QUILTING CLUBS, THE WOMAN’S CURLING CLUB, BEAD GROUPS, PAPER TROLL MAKERS ALL THAT CHEAP-ASS WORTHLESS CRAP, BUT SHE NEVER BROUGHT NOTHIN’ HOME, TOLE ME IT WAS LIKE CATCH-AND-RELEASE FISHING. ONLY THING SHE EVENTUALLY BROUGHT HOME WAS CLAP, FIRST SHE TRIED CLAIM I GIVE TO HER. TALK ABOUT BURN! WHICH IS HOW SHE BECOME MY FIRST EX-WIFE.”
Now, this Heywood kid we were talking about before Doug butted in, he wasn’t exactly enthralled with woodworking, but he loved books. He would halfheartedly cut plywood for a while, and after a while sneak upstairs to the stacks where Mrs. Maude Zegelbrier was the honcho. Mrs. Z described her job as the “village’s book hander-outer,” a job she held for 35 years. Mrs. Z let the Heywood kid skip woodworking and come sit Indian-legged between stacks where he was free to explore anything on her shelves, no restrictions, no rules, no warnings. It was a place where he could follow his young fancy, even if it meant staring at the breasts of south sea dancing women in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHICS, which he did. You bet he did.
Because he’s an old man now, some of Heywood’s friends insist he still fondly remembers the slightly musty smell of leather bindings and dusty shelves, and old yellowing pages, some of which crumbled to the touch. And the naughty pictures, of course. Yessir. Old is not synonymous with dead.
If you’re of an analytical bent, you have noticed that I switched voice from first person to third person, where it’s not entirely clear who is telling the story of young or old Heywood. Probably because I happen to be the one talking at the moment, you’re thinking it’s me. And you might even be right, but you don’t really yet have enough evidence to draw that conclusion. As an author I can see myself in the third person as a character in youth, or in extreme old age. My mind and imagination can take me anywhere in time and place and then it’s my job to use words and language to bring you there with me.
Hey, Doug’s first wife just whispered to me that she wants s a word and I guess it’s only fair to hear her out:
“DOUG LACKS…HOW CAN I SAY THIS DIPLOMATICALLY, A CERTAIN JE NE SAIS QUOI? YOU KNOW, LIKE HIS IDEA OF THE DURATION OF LOVEMAKING WAS THE EQUVALENT OF FLIPPING A COIN TO DETERIMINE THE KICKOFF, AND SLAPPING THAT COIN ON THE BACK OF YOUR HAND. FLIP-CATCH-SLAP-SHOW, DONE. DO YOU WANT TO KICK OFF OF DEFEND AN END? I’M TALKING SUPERSONIC SPEEDS AND SUBSONIC IMPACTS. LIKE HE WAS TOO FAST FOR FAST AND OF THE HURRY-UP-AND-I’M-DONE MINDSET. THAT’S DOUG. BUT HE’S A REALLY FINE PROVIDER, I HAVE TO GRANT HIM THAT WHERE WORLDLY GOODS ARE CONCERNED, HE’S TERRRIFIC. BUT A WOMAN NEEDS MORE, AT LEAST THIS WOMAN NEEDS MORE, HEAR WHAT I’M SAYING?
I can see in some of your eyes now: what in the hell is he doing? The answer is that I am trying to demonstrate how we construct fiction and nonfiction. While stories may seem to materialize out of a quasi-dream state, it’s the writer’s challenge to use his or her craft with language to make sure the story he is telling grabs and holds you. I’ve constructed two characters so far tonight and given voice to each.
Folks often ask me if they can learn creative writing in school and the answer is yes and no. What schools can teach students are the tools of writing, vocabulary, syntax, grammar, structure, all that jazz. What schools cannot teach is imagination. Teachers can recognize, encourage, and help exercise their students’ imaginations, but make no mistake, imagination is the fuel of fiction and can’t be installed like new software on a computer. Imagination is, like speed, something we are born with, or not, and whatever life gives us, you can always improve. Without imagination, truly creative and compelling writing will not happen.
Here’s another way to come at this writing and craft business: In the words of Todd Lockwood, a founder of the Brautigan Library in Vermont, “Ideas with vision will usually survive a less-than-perfect presentation. But the most elaborate presentation in the world will not substitute for vision.”
Like the old burger advertisement’s punchline: “Where’s the meat?”
A writer’s job — his or her challenge — is to make a story seem authentic to you as you read it. Authentic leads to compelling and to an air of veracity. I think I must do all right in this regard as a considerable number of people each year ask me if I am a retired conservation officer. I’m not.
Author Mary McCarthy once wrote: “We do really expect a novel to be true, not only true to itself …but true to actual life.” The reader not only makes believe that he or she believes a novel, but believes it substantially, as being continuous with or contiguous to real life, which is to say made of the same stuff and it is the presence of fact in fiction, of dates, and times, and places, and names, and distances that provide a kind of reassurance, a guarantee of credibility.
I try to tell my stories using what critics call the close third-person narrator, which means a free and indirect style. Take this sentence: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.” The use of the word “stupid” here begs the question: Whose word is this? It’s unlikely the author wants to call his character stupid merely for listening to some music in the auditorium. So what we have here is the author giving the word to the character without interrupting the flow of thought from the character’s mind. If the author chose to write conventional first person, he might have written something like, “It’s so stupid to be crying over this silly piece of Brahms, he thought.” But this last sentence is 12 words and the previous one is only seven, or 40 percent shorter, which makes the composition tighter and performs the alchemical trick of putting you directly into the character’s head. All this achieved by using that one word, “stupid.” This is an example of why writing is called an art and why you will hear authors, critics, and teachers talk about how every word is important. It is. Some writers call this “mastering compression.”
The second example which ended with “he thought” is a stark reminder that the author is in the story, at least as an observer, so the first approach is better at removing a potential item that might distract your reader’s focus.
This is what I strive for with Grady Service and Lute Bapcat and, of course, I fall way short of what I strive for in my hoped-for-effect, which I suppose is a kind of inner voice of free thought, or stream-of-consciousness aimed at the moment in the story, the way things happen in our minds every day, in fact are happening right now as we gawk at each other. The goal, of course is to make the characters as human and believable as possible.
Technically this approach is called free indirect style, a term probably only writers and students bother about (or should), but it is the secret to the alchemy of getting the reader into a character’s mind and emotions. The beauty of it is that as with the sentence with the “stupid tears,” you sense these are the character’s words, when in fact they are words the writer chose for the reasons we’ve just talked about.
An advantage of this modified first-person approach is what it does for apparent veracity. As my narrators, Grady Service and Lute Bapcat, are eye-witnesses testifying to you the reader that the things they are relating to you did indeed happen, even though you the reader know they did not happen, that the story is fabricated. This gap is as we described earlier, the willing suspension of disbelief.
I have met dozens of folks who insist on telling me that they never bother to read fiction. Either they’re “too busy,” or they only want to read fact, and truth, and reality, so whadya think of that, buster?
These people live in a fool’s corner. Think about this: Truth or fiction is only a matter of degree. A novel is both nonfiction and fiction, real but altered (and sometimes only very transparently).
Passion for fact in a raw state is a peculiarity of most novelists. Most of the great novels contain blocks and lumps of fact – stubborn, obstinate, sometimes unmanageable lumps, and chunks, that provide the porridge of the tale, the things that stick to your ribs. Someone once wrote that probability judgments are higher for richer, more detailed scenarios, which may seem contrary to logic and common sense, because adding details make story-telling more persuasive yet less likely to come true. Habitual liars know this. Hemingway boiled it down to, “A big lie is more plausible than truth.”
Novelist Alice McDermott once told an interviewer, “I write fiction because it is a way of ordering the world and if you are to make the world orderly, you have to change it, because it is not orderly on its own.”
Let me say one last thing about audience and again I’ll lean on Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V: The chorus opens the play with some words to the audience. This is an advantage the playwright has over the novelist, though it’s also possible to do this by various techniques in fiction. Here’s what the chorus announces to the audience right after they step on stage:
“Think when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs I’ the receiving earth; for tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, carry them here and there; jumping o’er times.”
The message is “Hey, folks, it’s up to you to listen to the words and let your minds create the detailed pictures of the action we’ll be playing. In other words, let us transport you to another time and place, but you have to be willing to make the trip and do some of the work. The reader of a book can be no less attentive than the groundling watching the play on the stage above him. Stories, we can argue, are a bit of a dance and as we know it takes two to tango.
Enough on technique, let’s turn briefly to subject matter. People, critics and media folk often talk about my use of the U.P., not just as a setting, but as an overarching force and even a character in my stories.
As an author, I seek first to grab the collar of your attention, to give you the feel of something alive and moving ahead. My way to do this is to orient you with geographical descriptions, names of towns, mountains, roads, landmarks, counties, rivers, everything, the so-called social topography. I want you captured and on edge and curious, and of course, comfortable to the degree that you keep reading.
Description creates a comfort zone, a familiar site and place, but the Upper Peninsula itself is a character with force because it is physically isolated, semi-wild, and like all such places, sociologists tell us, a magnet for extremes in personalities. I do not however give you a detailed picture of Grady Service because visually I want each reader to have his own Grady or Lute. Going short on description of the main character, forces the reader to form a picture from what he hears and imagines and in this way he becomes a participant in the story, and this alone guarantees more interest and focus.
As for the UP and wilderness, I make it integral in most of my work for a couple of reasons.
Edwin Way Teale, one of our greatest American naturalist writers wrote in his 1945 The Lost Woods.
“In nature, just having been is enough. To be the thing is its own justification. The frailty of passing beauty is no cause for mourning. Nature raises no monuments. The grass that is eaten by the browsing deer has met a worthwhile end. The snowflake that perishes after drifting downward through the sky neither asks for nor deserves oour pity. It has been what it is supposed to be.”
As the late and great Bernard DeVoto once wrote,
“A wilderness foes no coddling. You succeed or you die, fast or slow. Mother Nature reserves the upper hand and the last word.”
Matter-of-fact-carnage and brutality are part of the fabric of wilderness life.
Here is an excerpt from a series of family memoirs about the settlers of Summit, Michigan (which is a suburb of Herman, MI) both of which are about 5 or 6 miles east of us as the crow flies over the steep hilly woods. The author writes:
“My mother recalled a neighbor boy by the name of Uno Niemi who was hanging on a pole close to the railroad tracks, and fell down. The train passed over his legs and the boot with his leg still stuffed inside it was dragged about a quarter-mile when it finally fell off. Uno’s brother, Rudolph, who was running along the tracks, came upon the boot and threw it aside, not realizing the boot still had a foot in it. Uno never made it to the hospital.”
This truly an awful story told with no fanfare, and almost no emotion, told with exactly the sort of attitude wilderness life breeds in those who choose to face and survive it. An old T-shirt with an outline of the U.P. proclaims, “Rugged as its coastlines, Tough as its winters, Independent as its people.” These are my people, the ones I care about, the ones I admire and write about.
In our modern bumper sticker culture lingo we would say, “Shit happens.”
Dialog is another way of creating tension, providing information and setting tone.
Here’s Doug’s second wife, whom we’ve not met until now. Doug is standing quietly beside her.
‘I’M DOUG’S WIFE, THE CURRENT ONE? THEY CALL ME HOSTA AND I KNOW DOUG COMPLAINS ABOUT MY SIS AND ME GOING OVER TO THE CASINO, BUT I’M A NURSE, I GAMBLE WITH MY OWN MONEY AND SIS AND I GO OVER THERE ONCE A MONTH FOR A GOOD MEAL AND TO BLOW OFF SOME STEAM. ONLY ONCE DID DOUG HAVE TO PAY AND THAT’S BECAUSE SIS AND I FORGOT OUR CREDIT CARDS AND THE MANAGER WAS NICE ENOUGH TO SHOO THE BILL TO DOUG WHO PAID IT WITHOUT TALKING TO ME FIRST AND HAS BEEN COMPLAINING EVER SINCE. AIN’T THAT RIGHT HON?
Doug says: “I GUESS.”
Here a small point: I opened this paragraph in the dialog with the phrase “Doug says.” That’s active, the noun before the verb. If I wanted a slower pace, I might have instead written “says Doug” the verb preceding the noun. This is called the passive and while there is a place for passive moments passive books are almost always dead in the water.
Hosta continues talking to us:
“THAT MAN! MY HUSBAND LIKES TO PLAY THE CURMUDGEON, BUT HE SORT OF STRETCHES THE TRUTH AND I THINK HE LIKES TO PLAY THE VICTIM, HIS FIRST WIFE – I CALL HER HIS PRACTICE WIFE—HER NAME WAS BIBI AND SHE USED HIM BIG-TIME. UNLIKE SOME OTHER MEN, HE NEVER BEAT ON HER OR NOTHING LIKE THAT. DOUG’S GRUFF, BUT HE’D NEVER HURT NOBODY, WOULD YOU HON?”
Doug replies sheepishly: I MIGHTA THUNK ON IT A LONG WHILE, BUT NO I GUESS NOT.”
But Hosta tells us, “ME? I’D PROBABLY HAVE SHOT HER AFTER SHE BROUGHT HOME A SOCIAL DISEASE. THIS IS A SMALL TOWN, SO EVERYBODY KNEW, EH?”
Now we have met three characters, Doug, his first wife Bibi, and his current wife Hosta, (A name I took while looking at a neighbor’s garden). Four characters, if you count the narrator, which at this point may or may not be me. And we now have had some dialog between Doug and Wife No. 2, Hosta. I haven’t actually taken you inside any of the three heads so you can hear innermost voices, but I have suggested to you what those inner voices might be sharing what that characters declare out loud. The truth is that if I took you into their heads you might find them think altogether differently than they are speaking, which is very human. We often hide what we think under a barrage of words, or in silence. As we move from character to character I can cause you as the reader to emote in certain ways and this in turn is used to create dramatic effect and tension in the story as it unfolds.
Until this point I’ve let you hear Doug talking directly to you, out loud. Now let’s move another step and watch him using the close third-person narrator.
It is snowing outside and Doug had just gotten to the shop and he is using his key to turn the lock and he is thinking, “I NEVER WANTED A THING TO DO WITH ROCKS, BUNCH OF OLD DEAD THINGS. I TOLD UNCLE DAVE I’D HELP OUT. I OPEN THE SHOP ON TIME, AND PUT IN MY TIME. STRANGE, BUT A FEW YEARS WENT BY AND I FOUND MYSELF SO INTERESTED IN ROCKS I COULD HARDLY THINK OF ANYTHING ELSE. AND ONE DAY UNCLE DAVE SAYS HE’S GOT THE OLD TIMERS AND HE LETS ME BUY THE SHOP AND ALL THE STUFF IN IT. I COULDN’T BELIEVE IT. MY OWN SHOPOF DEAD STUFF. I PRICE MY STUFF FAIR. I TREAT FOLKS WHO COME TO ME WITH RESPECT AND I TRY TO GET THEM INTERESTED IN ROCKS. IT’S NOT BECAUSE IT’S MY BUSINESS, WHICH IT IS, BUT BECAUSE I REALLY LOVE ROCKS. THEY WERE HERE BEFORE US AND PROBABLY WILL BE HERE LONG AFTER WE’RE LONG GONE AND REPLACED BY WHATEVER WILL COME NEXT. I TRY NOT TO DWELL ON WHAT’S GONE WRONG IN MY LIFE. I TRY TO FOCUS ON WHAT’S GOING GOOD, AND NO MATTER THE WEATHER, OR HOW MANY BILLS I’VE GOT STACKED UP OR HOW MUCH MONEY THE WIFE IS GAMBLING. I WOULD’VE MADE A DAMN GOOD COP, BUT THAT DIDN’T TURN OUT FOR ME AND SO IT GOES. I STILL LOOK FORWARD TO EVERY DAMN DAY AND I BET NOT TOO MANY PEOPLE CAN SAY THAT. UNCLE DAVE’S STILL ALIVE, DON’T RECOGNIZE ANYONE BUT WHEN I TAKE A NEW AGATE TO HIM, HE LIGHTS UP LIKE THE SUN.”
A major focus of most writers, I think and hope, is that of language-tightening, compressing it, trying to get what we write tighter and tighter, so tight that little extraneous light can squeeze through it. I try to start my stories as close to the end as possible, letting dialog tell the story as much as possible. In the stuff I’ve given you on Doug there is not a single clue to his looks, size, age, anything. I provide a minimum of description of characters, preferring to let the readers’ minds create their own pictures. This is why books made into movies often fail — because the actor chosen for the role looks and or even sounds nothing like the one in your head. So it goes. They’re different animals, books and movies. But that’s a topic for another night in another place. Speaking of compression: The Gettysburg address was only 272 words.
Thank your for wasting your perfectly good night on so many more words.
The End: Questions?
I can even see a couple of smiles!
Da Crowd, Da Crowd.